More than 2 million Ukrainians have found refuge in Poland, many as guests in people’s homes.
Alina Smetanka (right) shares an apartment in Kraków with Iryna Tykhonenko and their two children Liza, 9, and Anton, 12. Photographs by Dawid Zieliński for POLITICO
POLISH CELLARGuest rooms and guesthouses are filled with Ukrainian refugees.
More than 2 million people have entered Poland since the Russian invasion began on February 24 – giving the country one of the largest refugee populations in the world.
Some stay just a few days and then move west to other EU countries, others stay close to Ukraine hoping to return home soon.
But everyone needs a place to stay. These beds are provided by a large number of ordinary Poles in an amazing wave of bottom-up support. It’s all a little novel for now, but there are concerns about how long the hospitality will last if the war rages on and millions of frightened people are unable to return to Ukraine.
POLITICO visited three Polish households to get a feel for how Ukrainian families have settled in with their hosts.
Iryna and Szczepan
It’s March 15th and Iryna Zinchenko looks nervously at her phone while she cooks lunch – pasta with bacon. The day before, she heard from her parents for the first time in over a week, and today is the day they are supposed to flee Mariupol, a city in southern Ukraine that is under heavy attack by Russian forces.
Zinchenko, 27, her husband Ivan Kokhno, 28, their 3-year-old son Lev and four cats made the same trip a week earlier. The strategic port city on the Sea of Azov was an obvious target for a Russian attack; Even before the invasion, Zinchenko and her family prepared a grab bag in case they had to flee.
When the Russian attack began, they grabbed the bag and took a bus that began a 1,500-kilometer journey to Warsaw. Zinchenko now wishes she had taken more things with her – for example, the stamps of Lev’s feet and hands, a popular birth memorial sign. But she shakes off those thoughts.
“To be honest sometimes I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because I had the opportunity to take my son from there,” she says.
Zinchenko can’t remember where they entered the EU – but she remembers feeling relieved after the long and dangerous journey.
“When I first crossed the border, I felt inner calm… I was calm, I felt peaceful, I was looking at the sunset. It was just a beautiful moment and I just stopped and thought about everything [will be] Okay, and I just cried,” she says.
At the bus station in Warsaw, they met Szczepan Żurek, a 42-year-old teacher of Polish. He had been informed via social media that there would be a transport of Ukrainian refugees in need of shelter and gave the newcomers a room in his two-bedroom apartment.
“We had faith and trust that we will arrive and we will find a way. We were lucky, we were very, very lucky with Szczepan,” says Zinchenko.
Her family has occupied one room – with a mattress on the floor and a huge pile of toys for Lev – while Żurek lives in the other bedroom. They share a large, bright kitchen and a bathroom.
“That’s the right thing to do,” says Żurek, but emphasizes that the solution is not permanent. “After a month some tension might come out, it would be difficult to live like that for a year. There must be more systemic solutions.”
When lunch is ready, Zinchenko receives a message: her parents managed to leave Mariupol.
The next step is to find an apartment to rent, which will not be easy. The addition of 300,000 people to Warsaw’s 1.8 million population has expanded the capital’s real estate market.
There is no long-term plan.
“I try not to think about it because I don’t know what’s left of Ukraine,” says Zinchenko.
Alina, Iryna and Krzysztof
Alina Smetanka and Iryna Tykhonenko both hail from the Kyiv area but had never met before the war. Now they share an apartment in Kraków.
Their experiences from the first days of the war in Kyiv are very similar. They hid in makeshift shelters during nights of intense bombing – Smetanka, 42, at a metro station, Tykhonenko, 38, and their two children, 12-year-old Anton and 9-year-old Liza, in the basement of a local kindergarten.
But one night Smetanka didn’t make it to the train station in time and was on the street during shelling.
At the same time, Tykhonenko’s husband, a professional soldier, called and said to her: “Please save our children, go abroad.”
Both women left Kyiv and ended up in Kraków, a city of 800,000 people in southern Poland, where they met in a queue waiting for accommodation. They spent two nights in a gym with hundreds of other refugees before Krzysztof Lis, a human resources specialist, invited them home.
He has a large duplex apartment where he lives with his son, partner and their daughter – but she has a lot of space. In order to offer his guests more privacy, Lis has set up a tent in the middle of the living room.
He says Smetanka and Tykhonenko can stay until the summer. “I wanted to give them security, a feeling that they have this place for many months,” he says.
The refugees don’t know what to do next.
“I dream of returning to Kyiv, but now it’s hard to invent something, to plan something,” says Smetanka.
Tykhonenko is now focused on getting his life back to normal. Their children begin to attend the Polish school; The government has opened access to schools for all refugee children. “They’re not very happy,” she says.
She is also waiting for her daily SMS from her husband in Kyiv. The text is always: “I’m fine.”
“I text him ‘thank you’,” says Tykhonenko. “That means he’s alive.”
Svitlana and Bartłomiej
A large “Happy Birthday” banner hangs above the living room of a three-bedroom apartment in Kraków. It’s for Danylo who turned 2 a day before.
“I was so busy volunteering that I realized I didn’t have a gift for him,” says Svitlana Pshenychna, 34, Danylo’s mother. “But we found a cake and it was good.”
Pshenychna comes from Lytwynivka, a small village between Kyiv and the border with Belarus – today one of the main attack paths for Russian troops.
“We didn’t believe that war, the real war, could take place in our day. We think, “Maybe it’s a few attacks and it’s over,” she says. “After a few days we decided there was no other choice, we had to go somewhere safer. It was very difficult for me because I have to leave my husband.”
She left Ukraine with Danylo, her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and daughter. Because the queues at the Polish border were so long, they instead entered the EU via Hungary before continuing on to Kraków.
Pshenychna found accommodation at her company Epam Systems, an IT company with thousands of employees in Ukraine and Poland. Polish workers have agreed to share their apartments with their Ukrainian colleagues. This is how Pshenychna met Bartłomiej Kosiba, who welcomed her into an apartment that he usually rents out.
“We are very, very impressed with everything Bartek and his wife have done for us,” says Pshenychna. “We came and we have everything: lots of food, vegetables, fruit, even towels, even toothpaste, everything.”
Kosiba says he was “not afraid” to share the apartment with a colleague. “Right now we don’t need anyone to pay us,” he says.
Pshenychna turned the apartment into a “transfer point” for other Ukrainian refugees and allowed people to stay there for a few nights.
She is full of energy and laughs a lot.
“I’m a very positive person,” she says. “As my husband says, ‘You sleep and smile.'”
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